Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'I have to make Samsung a local Indian brand': JB Park

Meet the Korean CEO, who is in love with Hindi cinema, butter chicken, and believes that the India growth story presents a big opportunity for the global electronics corporation

Rajiv Singh
Published: Aug 7, 2023 04:14:43 PM IST
Updated: Aug 7, 2023 05:55:45 PM IST

'I have to make Samsung a local Indian brand': JB ParkJB Park, President and CEO of Samsung Electronics Southwest Asia Image: Madhu Kapparath

JB Park is candid. “Friend or foe is a very tricky question because a friend can become a foe or a foe can become a friend,” reckons the president and CEO of Samsung Electronics Southwest Asia. JB—as he is widely known among his colleagues and friends—came to India in December 2018 to head the mobile division, and last December he was elevated as the CEO. Into his fifth year in the country, JB has led from the front to reclaim the biggest smartphone billing from Xiaomi, and is now facing a close fight from another Chinese rival Vivo. He tells us what would happen if Vivo becomes bigger than Samsung in some quarters. “It would trigger something within me…like JB, you must do better,” he laughs. “That’s the adrenaline that keeps us moving,” he adds.

Park is unidimensional. “We only look at the consumer. They are the king,” he says in an exclusive interview with Forbes India. The South Korean biggie is obsessed with users and not worried about the pressure and stress that comes with keeping the crown. “Consumer are the thing that matters to us,” he says.

Park confesses his love for Hindi films. “I like Rajkummar Rao,” says the Korean honcho, who binged on Indian movies for eight months when he was staying in a hotel after landing in India. “I love masala dosa,” he smiles, adding that the latest film that he watched was ‘Meenaskhi Sundareshwar.’ “I feel very comfortable in dosa. It’s addictive,” he says. There is another cuisine that JB just can’t stop talking about: Butter chicken! “Order any dish from Punjab and North India and it iss good because you have so much butter in them,” he laughs. “What about beverages,” I ask, and the CEO continues to talk about his love affair. “I like tea in clay pots,” he says.  

He is also an emotional person. “All Koreans are,” Park says. “We get emotional while watching a soccer game,” he says. A football match between Korea and Japan, JB points out, gets as emotional as a cricket match between India and Pakistan. “Like Indians, Koreans too like spicy food,” he says. Spicy food, the CEO lets on, makes your brain calm your stresses. “It also affects your emotions,” he says, adding that peninsula people like Italians and Koreans have a tendency of bursting out of anger. “We use a lot of body language,” says JB in a free-wheeling and exclusive interview. Excerpts:

On Friends And Foes

Friend or foe is a very tricky question because a friend can become a foe or a foe can become a friend. Vivo, Oppo, OnePlus and Realme…they're all BBK [Chinese multinational conglomerate]. And then you have Huawei, and Xiaomi. So, these are three pillars in China. If you look at all the Chinese brands and Samsung, are we fighting in the market? Yes. We are with our products. But if you reverse it, we are also partners because all source components from us. So, is our technology helping them? Yes. And yes, we fight with the final product.

Fighting in the market is very healthy. I believe in healthy competition. We benefit from selling our products to them. Just like the recent foldable phones, the foldable technology is now being adopted by multiple Chinese brands.

Is Vivo, if they succeed in India, harmful for Samsung? Not necessarily, because we have semiconductors, we have display, battery and other kinds of components, which are partially being sourced by BBK. So, it's one of our biggest customers, but it's also one of our biggest foes. Number 1, 2, and 3 is always a healthy competition.

Also read: From Bricks To Flips: 50 Years Of Mobile Phones 

On K Pop, Drama & Movies

Why do you think Indians love K-drama, K-pop or K-movie? When I watch Indian movies and then compare them with Korean movies, there's one thing in common. One common element. And that element is that ‘right’ always defeats ‘evil.’ It is always about right and wrong. That's the philosophy of all Indian movies. Whether they are old movies that I watched when I stayed in a hotel for months or some recent ones on Netflix, there's always a fight between right and wrong, good versus evil.

The fundamentals remain the same for Koreans. Watch any drama or movie, you are kind of hypnotised to think you are the character. And then they make you cry, and then there's glory and happiness in the end. That's the same philosophy that makes people think everywhere. Korean people are also dreamers. Indians are so hooked into Korean drama because they too are dreamers. All of us dream of a better partner, better family, better life and a better tomorrow. K-pop, K-drama…they are addictive, very addictive. Once you get hooked into YouTube and the music video, you spend a whole day watching the relay of those songs.

But the same holds true for Indian songs! You get addicted. The beats are repetitive and then, you get along, because everybody dances. In K-drama or K-pop, everybody dances. There's a similarity. That's basic human nature.

On Rankings & Pecking Order

We always and only look at consumers. Everything else is just a path that takes you to the user. Consumer is the king, and consumer is the only thing that matters to us.

On Mission & Building A ‘Local’ Brand

Brand is important. My number one priority is brand. It brings you loyalty and it makes business sustainable. Brands just don’t disappear. How I can build my brand for the future is something that I'm working on today. I have to set a right roadmap and blueprint. I have to make Samsung a local brand so that every Indian consumer will look at Samsung as an Indian brand. It involves local manufacturing, local marketing, localising features and products. We have R&D centres in India developing local features and products. We have a design centre that designs locally. So how do I put the masala into our product so that is perceived as an Indian brand. This is my number one mission.

My second mission is how do we make the next top technology adaptable to our product? That is something that no other brand can do. We have a mobile product, a network, and also consumer electronics. If you think about those three categories, they're all connected. Connectivity is important because if you look at every sector of that business, it can be a separate business unit. But Samsung has the ability to connect all those products. Connectivity means a change of lifestyle. Whether you are working or at home, connectivity will be different. And how do I aid connectivity by AI technology? The 6G will kick in by 2027.

 Our CE (consumer electronics) product and mobile product are linked in a way that benefits the consumer for ease of doing their business or households. These are platforms that I need to build, and make it easy for people to access. If it's difficult and if you have to go through manuals, then it’s not worth.

On Being An Emotional Person

Koreans are very emotional people. We get emotional while watching a soccer game. Korea versus Japan football match gets as emotional as a cricket match between India and Pakistan. Like Indians, Koreans too like spicy food. Spicy food makes your brain calm your stresses. It also affects your emotions. Peninsula people like Italians and Koreans also have a tendency of bursting out of anger. We use a lot of body language.

On CEOs Wearing Emotions

Striking a right balance is important. You cannot always be calm. If you do so, then you're a boring person. The push and pull is necessary for a CEO. One needs to push the team and embrace them to have more brainstorming ideas. But one must remember that if you push too much, there's no creativity or innovation. You always have to embrace them to be creative. But if you embrace them too much, then they don't know they're being embraced. So, there's always a push and pull, and the balance is important.

Also read: Why Xiaomi is in a downward spiral

On Learnings & Mistakes

Let's talk about mistakes first. Even though I have been to a lot of towns and cities, I have not interacted deeply with people because of the language barrier. India has a diversified culture, language and food. So, I need to learn more about the culture, history, and lifestyle. This is something that I need to work on.

But what I am proud of is having established a culture. I openly communicate with my team and partners. That is a strength that brings people together to one common goal. You can write emails, or you can have a video conference, but face-to-face meeting, and then opening up your heart or your thoughts and then interacting is something different. It's human to human. Over the past five years one thing I am extremely proud of is winning the trust of the partners.

 On Sustainability

Sustainability has been at the centre of our innovations for a decade now. Our latest flagship Galaxy S23 is manufactured using recycled materials sourced from discarded fishing nets, water barrels and PET bottles. We introduced the SolarCell remote in our TVs to eliminate battery waste and incorporated AI mode in our TVs to reduce energy consumption.

On The Big India Story & Opportunity

Samsung has grown with India, from $6 million revenue in 1995 to $10 billion company today. We have one of the world’s largest smartphone factories in Noida, another state-of-the-art facility to manufacture consumer electronics products in Chennai, five R&D centres and one design centre, contributing significantly to the Indian economy. India is poised to emerge as the world’s 3rd largest economy in this decade.

We believe there is immense opportunity for Samsung. India is poised to be the growth engine for global smartphone market and is of paramount importance to Samsung. We have seen the rapid adoption of 5G smartphones and growing demand for premium smartphones in India. The huge base of tech savvy consumers make India a very important market for us. We are confident that we will see robust growth.

On Leaving A Legacy

Everybody has a beginning and an end, and how I make a beautiful exit from India is by leaving my footprint. My successor has to look at the footprint that JB has left whenever his stint gets over. They have to look at what I have established and built for the future. This year is my first year as a CEO. Last four years I was handling the mobile division. How can I set a strong foundation for Samsung India in mobile, consumer electronics and network is something I am working on. How can I make Samsung the most beloved brand is something I have to keep working on.